October 1, 2007

New Plan, Same Old Game

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Movie studios love to recycle ideas. Why hire a talented writer to pen an original story when you can get a hack to regurgitate clichés and still gross millions at the box office? Did the executives who green-lit The Game Plan actually think, “Sure, it’s been done before, but I think we can make it better, as long as we get The Rock to star in it?” The Game Plan is one of those unmemorable Hollywood rehashes, the kind that fills theaters and makes money, but makes no real impression on the audience and doesn’t have much of anything to say.

Joe Kingman (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the superstar quarterback for the Boston Rebels. On the field, he wears the number “1,” appropriate given his penchant for trying to make the big play himself rather than trusting his receivers with the game on the line. Off the field, billboards and TV commercials confirm his status as a household name. But ubiquity comes at a price, and, despite the fame and adoration he enjoys, Joe is, deep down, a lonely guy.

All that changes, however, when a little girl (Madison Pettis) shows up at his doorstep, flaunting a birth certificate that lists him as the father. Her name is Peyton, and her mother, Joe’s ex-wife, is in Africa for a month doing humanitarian work, leaving the girl in Joe’s care. All of a sudden, the football star has to adjust his bachelor lifestyle to accommodate the demands of an eight-year-old girl. What follows are a string of blundering mishaps that illustrate Joe’s difficulty in adjusting to parenthood, often to humorous effect. Predictably though, despite the occasional butting-of-heads, Peyton and Joe grow on one another, and the responsibilities of fatherhood transform the football star from an egomaniac into a good guy and a team player, as audiences around the country roll their eyes in unison.

Johnson is charismatic in the lead role, and, while he won’t be confused for a serious actor any time soon, he’s a solid entertainer who manages to deliver some genuinely sincere moments. Additionally, Pettis is freakishly adorable as the precocious Peyton, which is really all the role asked for. The two work fairly well together and one imagines that with some better writing they might be able to do some decent work. There are a handful of scenes in the movie where we believe these characters could actually be real people, rather than half-baked caricatures, and you get the impression that the Johnson and Pettis had a lot to do with it. For example, after a particularly fierce spat that sees Peyton locking herself in her room, Joe channels Elvis, crooning “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” while strumming his guitar outside the door. Thanks to the actors, it’s a nice moment that manages to be sweet but not saccharine.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie isn’t able to achieve that delicate balance of sentimentality. Because the movie is covering such familiar territory and relies so heavily on the clichéd “Aww” moments of the family film genre, most of the plot points (with one notable exception) are telegraphed from a mile away. When Peyton innocently asked Joe what the best thing that ever happened to him was, it’s hard to believe there honestly a person in the audience who didn’t know where the conversation was going, and what the answer would eventually be. There are plenty of other problems as well, some of which are minor issues, while others are far more egregious. The film’s comedic sections, in particular, leave a lot to be desired. The problem isn’t that they aren’t funny (in a goofy, childish sort of way) but that the types of gags written into the script have been executed so often in comparable movies (Big Daddy and Like Mike come to mind) that the shtick just feels tired and uninteresting.

There’s a lot of room for improvement, but most of the problems are small potatoes, and don’t really distract all that much. There is, however, one element of The Game Plan that is truly abhorrent: Kyra Sedgewick (of television’s The Closer), doing a poor impression of a heartless sports agent. Her performance is so repugnant that she threatens to drain every ounce of charm from the movie each time she appears on screen. Someone needs to confiscate this woman’s SAG card immediately.

Even as I list all of the The Game Plan’s flaws, though, part of me feels wrong in blasting a product that so obviously wasn’t meant for me. If I saw this movie when I was still losing my baby teeth, I probably would’ve enjoyed it. Then again, that fact that The Game Plan was made for kids shouldn’t give it a free pass. Studios like Pixar regularly eschew the hackneyed conventions of children’s entertainment to produce films that appeal to all demographics. It’s too bad that Disney didn’t learn a thing or two from their frequent collaborators, because, in the end, The Game Plan simply isn’t very good.